Turning the tide on democratic decline

The English speaking countries have been justifying their push into the Middle East in the name of spreading democracy. But question marks are looming over the health of democracy at home.

‘Democratic Decline’ is the term used to describe the plummeting trust in government and the abandonment of traditional forms of political participation such as joining political parties and voting.

These trends emerged first, and are most pronounced, in the United States. Between the 1960s and 1990s, America experienced a 25% drop in voter turnout, a 40% decline in party membership and the number of Americans believing that ‘Government can be trusted to do the right thing’ dived from 75% to 25%. And despite recent blips, there is growing evidence that all the anglophile democracies are following suit.

One explanation is that democratic decline is collateral damage from the cold war battle of ideas.

Collectivism — whether it took the form of a Keynesian welfare state or socialism – was in the ascendancy in the 1940s. In the wake of the great depression the accepted wisdom was that markets were inherently unstable and some form of collectivism would prevail. This view sat comfortably with the predominant view of democracy at the time. In this ‘civic republican’ approach, democracy was a means for the collective deliberation on the common good. All citizens’ voices should be heard in the process of self government.

In the second half of the 1900s there was a push towards market individualism. In order to win this battle of ideas, a wave of arguments emerged questioning government’s ability to act in the common interest. It was argued that self interested bureaucrats, interest groups and politicians created systemic failures. The answer was to turn control back over to the market. The privatization and de-regulation movements began.

James Buchannan, an economics Nobel Laureate whose public choice theory was a key to these developments, made no bones about his triumph. He declared ‘Socialism is dead! We have dissuaded both the public and the politicians from the belief that government operates in the public interest.’

In seizing victory, the individualists also shifted dominant understandings of democracy. A new model of democracy emerged that was consistent with competitive individualism. Democracy began to be painted as a market like mechanism for mediating between competing interests. It was an arena in which powerful interests competed against one another for the largest slice of the public pie.

The success of this movement echoes through the rhetoric of George W’s speeches. It is remarkable to recall, as Kenneth Arrow observed in 1978, that “it is only relatively recently in the history of the great debate between socialism and capitalism that an allegation of a peculiar association between capitalism and democracy has become a staple of the pro-capitalism argument”.

A Self Fulfilling Prophecy

The cold war battle of ideas has damaged democracy. And the cost is more than a mere loss of trust.

The individualist ideas have built a new practice of democracy. The competing self interest model acts as a self fulfilling prophecy. Citizens adopted new strategies as their beliefs about the system changed. There was an explosion in narrow interest groups vying for political power.

In the public imagination, government has become an arena for battles between powerful interests. Only the strong are heard. The average citizen has assumed they are powerless and stopped participating. They stopped joining political parties, and in places where it was not compulsory, stopped turning out to vote.

This presents serious threats to our ability to govern ourselves in the longer term. As moderate citizens withdraw, politics is left to the extreme self-seekers. The more people believe that laws exist to serve narrow interests, the less likely they are to follow them. Eventually, governments will end up having to use more compulsion, and face more resistance, to achieve the basic tasks of governing.

What is to be done?

To turn the tide on democratic decline we have to rebuild people’s belief that ‘civic republican’ democracy works. In tackling this task it is crucial to understand the key point of contention between the two world views. The heart of the debate is about the scope for gains from co-operation.

In the individual self interest model of democracy, the sources of the good life are a finite pot of resources. Politics is the struggle to get the biggest share of the resources for oneself.

In the civic republican approach, people are able to achieve large gains by getting organised and acting together. In this approach politics is a struggle over how we should co-ordinate ourselves.

The debate about whether politics is primarily about conflicting interests or achieving common interests is as old as the study of politics itself. Aristotle and Plato went several rounds on the issue. Nonetheless, current perspectives are sufficiently askew that it should not be hard to bring a little balance back to the debate.

The central question is whether wealth, and the other sources of the good life, can be expanded by people acting effectively together. The answer has to be unequivocally — yes!

As we cast our thoughts to various places around the world, we find that natural resources and human talent are as prevalent in some of the poorest parts of the world as they are in the richest. What brings wealth, security and quality of life is not natural resources, but how well people are able to co-ordinate and act together.

From road rules, to tax systems, to large commercial production chains – wealth and opportunity are created by working effectively together. When we look at our schools and our hospitals, our roads and infrastructure, our systems of law and order, and our relative lack of slums — we have to conclude that acting in co-ordinated ways has enabled us to bring about gains in human welfare that are not available if we act alone.

We need to bring the strengths and weaknesses of government and democracy back into perspective. Yes, government is slow and cumbersome. Yes, there are vested interests at work. Yes, our governments make some bad decisions. Yes, Australians keep voting for governments I don’t like. Yes, our democracy is frustrating, slow and annoying.

But in the scheme of things – our government still works extremely well. We need to be teaching Australians that it is worth putting up with the frustrations of collective decision making. It is worth fighting the good fight to make democracy work the way it is supposed to. Because the gains from co-operation outweigh the costs.